(CBS Local)- In the years since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality, athletes have been using their voices and platforms more than ever to speak out about issues that affect themselves and their community. Racial and social injustice, voting rights, equal pay for equal play in women’s sports, all have been continued conversations. While many messages of support from fans accompany these athletes speaking out, there is also an opposition and push back, a “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble” crowd who would rather these athletes just play the games.
Dr. Vernon Andrews, a sociologist who currently teaches in the Multicultural and Gender Studies Department at California State University, Chico, has been studying the intersection of this divide, particularly in football, for much of his life. His book, Policing Black Athletes: Racial Disconnect In Sports, delves into his findings from surveys of fans, interviews with athletes and drawing on his own personal experiences to interrogate the problem and try to find solutions for how to bridge the divide.
For Dr. Andrews, the project began on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and he remembers as a child grappling with racism and what that meant for him and the country at large.
“Since that day, I’ve been looking at this issue of race and how you really bring people together. After all these years, I finally decided this was the time to put out what I had to say because it seemed as though the times had caught up with the book,” said Dr. Andrews in an interview with CBS Local’s Ryan Mayer.
The book dives into the backgrounds of both white and Black athletes and fans presenting the ways they interact with various cultural touchstones be it religion, family, and community to give its readers an understanding of both perspectives. An overarching theme is the “policing” of Black athletes both on the field, in the existence of rules against ‘excessive celebration’, and off, examining Kaepernick’s protest and the reactions that spiraled out of it. In bringing the perspectives of everyone to the table, Dr. Andrews hopes that an understanding can be built but he acknowledges, that no matter the re-framing, some will just fall back to the ground of not liking the protest because they see it as disrespectful to the flag.
“Sadly sometimes I think people see what they want to see. And if there’s an opinion of I dislike this, you can shift the framework towards something of, ‘oh I dislike what that person is doing because they’re doing this.’ I have one quote in the book that says people in other countries bomb, assassinate, people do all ranges of things. In America, what we do, is we kneel down. We kneel down for the National Anthem. That has become the lightning rod for outrageous protest. It’s amazing when we get to the point of that being an outrageous protest to constant death and constant humiliation in society,” said Dr. Andrews. “I don’t know if people want to see anything different. What I decided to do with the last chapters of the book is to bring everyone to the table and say, ‘you know what, let’s go right into the homes of people and see how they think about things.’ I want Black athletes and white athletes and Black citizens and white citizens to understand that we each have a perspective and that, in the end, we’re probably fighting for the same thing. But, we’re often pitted against one another so that it seems like really each other is the problem. When really it’s not that.”
While Dr. Andrews acknowledges that there may not be an easy solution in changing the minds of people. His hope is that the project, with eyes towards the future, can come up with solutions to a problem that if solved, could move the country closer to the ideals it professes to hold dear.
“My whole project here is looking ahead 100 years to a country that is much like the Star Trek: Discovery crew. You have all types of people and it doesn’t matter where they’re from, if they can do the job, they do the job. If they can move up the ranks they move up the ranks. Pure meritocracy. That’s something that America hopes for and something we say we have. I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet but my goodness what happens when we get there? What kind of influence can we have around the world? My project is looking at sports, the institution we do get it right in and within the institution what are the problems that need to be worked out,” said Dr. Andrews. “If we work out this, with committees and people listening and First Amendment rights that can be used on the field of play or wherever else? My goodness the opportunity we have as a country to be true leaders by example is phenomenal.”
In the end, Dr. Andrews hopes that those who read the book will come away with a better understanding of people on the opposite end of the spectrum and that having that background of knowledge may lay the groundwork for better conversations on these issues going forward.
“It’s all a matter of listening to each other and figuring each other out and continually doing that. Because it’s not a one shot deal, it’s not just this book. There are many things that will contribute along the way. But I think that I want people to walk away saying, you know I didn’t know that about the other group. Or, I didn’t know that Black people think this way about the church. That it’s a different place than it is for white people when they go to church. All of those things blend together to make the project something that I hope people walk away from saying, ‘my goodness what was that I just read? I had no idea about these things.'”
Policing Black Athletes: Racial Disconnect In Sports is now available everywhere books are sold.